Fashion and Fancy Dress Curator's Tour

Fashion and Fancy Dress: The Messel Family Dress Collection 1865-2005 is a major exhibition showing a unique selection of never before exhibited garments drawn from the extensive wardrobe of six generations of one family. It can be seen at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery until March 5 2006, and at the Ulster Museum, Belfast from April 14 2006 until August 29 2006.

Kristen Bailey took a tour with Eleanor Thompson, Curator of Costume at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Photo: Mourning bodice, by Madame Elphick, c.1885, worn by Mary Anne Herapath.

Photo: Bustle back dress c.1885, worn by Marion Sambourne.

Photo: Detail of dress, c.1905, worn by Maud Messel.

ET: "The decoration on this one is amazing - really unusual. We did lots of research but we still couldn’t find anything about it. It’s a very typical 1905 shape, this S-bend shape, but this is handpainted, with wax piped around the outside. Just incredible."

KB: "Although it’s very ornate it looks much more modern and less fussy, doesn’t it?"

ET: "It does. It's not typical Edwardian decoration – a complete anomaly. The best we could think of was maybe a Turkish influence – a hook and rose. They did travel quite a lot, her and Leonard, they travelled all over Europe, but still, there’s no evidence of where she bought this from. Possibly she saw something – she collected textiles, antique textiles."

Photo: Dress, by Mascotte, c.1905, worn by Maud Messel.

ET: "Maud was very into embroidery. She ran embroidery classes from her home in Sussex. This is a dress by a London couturier call Mascotte and this really unusual decoration, she just kind of slapped it there. It’s all a bit wonky, it’s not symmetrical, and these tassels as well, she would have added those herself. We’ve seen drawings and other dresses very similar - it’s very fashionable. But nothing like this."

KB: "So she’s buying couture and then customising it? That’s very unusual."

ET: "It is very unusual. Women of her class just didn’t do that. People would have stared at her."

ET: "They went a lot to Scotland, and this is her ‘hunting, shooting, fishing’ outfit. It’s a nice juxtaposition with this coat behind it that she was so fashionable that every season she updated so that’s 1905 with the ‘pigeon pounch’ and then 1907 with the princess line. Exactly the same fabric, but always updating."

Photo: Detail of walking outfit, by Sarah Fullerton Monteith Young, c.1910, worn by Maud Messel

ET: "Maud just loved applied decoration – buckles and laces. If you look at the lace it’s got palm trees and cherubs and literally everything you could stick onto a dress.

KB: "And is this a day dress?"

ET: "It’s a day dress, a walking dress, and it has a little jacket with a spotty silk lining that goes with it. All her clothes are so eyecatching. Very fashionable and very mainstream but with these additions – she knows she’s going to get noticed.

It’s by her favourite designer, who was a woman called Sarah Fullerton Monteith Young, who was a court dressmaker. She’s just completely slipped out of fashion history. Her clothes are really quite stunning and unusual. She was based in Grosvenor Square in London, we think.

Photo: Evening dress, by Neville, c.1911-1913, worn by Maud Messel.

ET: "We have two stunning Poiret-influenced evening dresses. Maud was very interested in China, and chinoiserie and the Oriental influences. There are a lot of very romanticised Oriental influences in her clothes – Chinese symbols and motifs. She was commissioning couturiers and we think that she was very influential in the design of the clothes."

"It was a collaborative process. She was saying, ‘I want this, and I want this buckle and this kind of lace’. We’ve got receipts saying, ‘using her own lace’."

Photo: Suit by Lucille, c.1913, worn by Maud Messel.

ET: "This is a Lucille suit. This is the only Lucille we’ve got in the collection. It’s really simple but the quality is amazing."

Photo: Chinese coat, early 20th Century, worn by Maud Messel.

ET: "They are two Chinese coats in the collection. She probably never wore them. You could buy Chinese coats in London at the time, but her uncle travelled to China so he probably brought them back for her. The blue one there with the fur trim – it’s beautiful – she probably did wear that one. It’s probably made in China but adapted for European tastes, much simpler."

ET: "Maud's daughter Anne really was a society doll – 20s, 30s, all the glamourous parties, with her brother. She entered into fashionable society through her brother Oliver. She was very cat-like, really beautiful. She was going to all the big fancy dress pageants and balls. That glittery thing at the back was probably made by her or Oliver for a fancy dress ball. There’s a lovely Beaton picture of her in something very similar, with a cellophane background and a single light bulb – very 20s."

Photo: Irfe, c.1927. White silk crepe printed with wheat and floral motif black and white.

ET: "This is a dress by a company called Irfé which was founded by Prince Yousopov and Princess Irina, Russian émigrés. Yousopov claimed to be one of the assasins of Rasputin. He lived in Paris in the 20s and has this company and was a very flamboyant figure - often seen dressed as a woman around Paris. He also had branches in London. His clientele were women who came to him because of his notoriety. There was some sort of cachet about being dressed by Rasputin’s assassin!"

"Anne’s dresses are so tiny (about a size 6), and just through the size of this one and the date we realised she must have been pregnant. It suddenly made sense – it’s big and that’s unusual because she was so tiny but it’s so clever with the draping and the repeat pattern."

"Like her mother, she customised her clothing. With this waterlily print dress here, she’s added tiny little diamante beads, and metallic thread, which you can just see when the light shines on it."

Photo: ‘Bali’ day dress, by Charles James, 1935, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse during her honeymoon.

ET: "So 1925 she marries Snowdon’s father, Armstrong-Jones. She’s divorced in 1935 and marries the 6th Earl of Rosse – Irish aristocracy. They have a year-long honeymoon and travel all over the world. They go to China and stop off in Bali, and Russia, I think… all over the place. Her trousseau was made by Charles James, and this yellow dress is her ‘Bali’ dress, which is very vaguely influenced by Balinese dress – around the waist and the crossover front."

"They visited Earl Rosse’s brother, who’s a Chinese scholar teaching in Peking, and he’s incurably ill so they take him home, back to Birr Castle – the family home in Ireland. And he has these chests full of Chinese treasures – clothes and scrolls."

KB: "She must have been in heaven looking through them."

ET: "She was. This we think is one piece which has been separated from the rest (which are in Ireland). This she had in her home in Yorkshire. It's incredible - probably a ceremonial garment which would either have been worn in the 18th century or late 19th century. The badge indicates that the wearer’s husband is very important."

Photo: Detail of ‘Snow White’ day dress, by Charles James, c.1937, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse.

ET: "The Snow White dress is amazing – by Charles James, after the film comes out. It’s a fantastic and unusual example of a merchandising twist, I guess. And the cut – you see at the front the faces have all been cut up and juxtaposed with each other. If you look, the faces are interesting – very odd! You think of Snow White as quite childlike but when you look at the actual faces it’s quite strange."

Photo: Anne, Countess of Rosse with her children Susan, Antony Armstrong-Jones and William Brendan, Lord Oxmantown, 1938. Anne is pictured wearing her Charles James Snow White dress, of the same year.

ET: "All through the mid-30s she’s great friends with Charles James. She really goes for these structured, Neo-Victorian evening gowns as opposed to 30s bias cut evening dresses. So, crinolines and bustles, fitted waists."

"My favourite is very glamourous. It’s called ‘Coque Noir’ - the Black Cock. We borrowed it from Lord Rosse, from his collection in Ireland. In a box it looks like a screwed up ball of black nothingness, and when you hold it up, you have no idea how that will fit and how it’s going to work. The cut is amazing."

Photo: ‘Ribbon’ evening dress, by Charles James, 1939, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse to the Blenheim Ball.

ET: "This again is Charles James. It’s the ribbon dress. It’s like an 8-year old child’s fantasy of a dress. It will perk up when we steam it. The problem is these are all worn clothes. They’ve been really loved and worn to death. The tradition is of each generation wearing the previous generation’s clothes. So they all get bent out of shape and stained. You can see that Anne’s daughter, Susan, was photographed wearing that dress."

Photo: Susan Armstrong Jones wearing her mother’s Charles James dress.

"There's a yellow dress in the exhibition which was handmade by Anne for her daughter Susan. They wrote little notes and attached them to the clothes and this one is really sweet. She says, ‘Sat up all night for a late invitation to Buck Pal’. She made that dress and Susan’s wedding dress, which is too fragile to display, but on the waistband she’d written in pencil, ‘To my darling Susan’, and she was going to sew it on but obviously ran out of time!"

Photo: Evening dress by Charles James, 1936, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse. Pink and Mustard silk bustle back dress, by S.A. Brooking, c. 1874, worn by Marion Sambourne.

ET: "……..Charles James. We thought, when we were doing the research, that this dress might have been influenced by the pink and mustard one (MARIONS?). She was great friends with Charles James at this date. He visited her at Linley Sambourne House, her grandparents home which she inherited, and her grandmother’s clothes were still stored there. And the colour combination is so unusual – amber and pink. The cut of this is so incredible. I can’t work it out. It's really bizarre, but amazing."

Photo: Evening dress by John Cavanagh, 1953, worn by Anne, Countess of Rosse.

ET: "This is what she wore to the 1953 coronation ball, and the fabric was designed by Oliver Messel, a commemorative fabric. It’s a John Cavanagh dress."

Photo: Wedding dress, made by Guyu, 2004, worn and designed by Anna Lin.

ET: "Here is our last generation of the family. This is the wedding dress of Anna Lin, who got married last year to Lord Rosse’s son, Patrick, Lord Oxmantown. Anna is Chinese and she designed this – a great fusion of Chinese traditions.

She had four wedding dresses. Another one will be displayed in the Royal Pavilion – her blessing dress which she wore in Ireland. It's a mock Gothic, medieval fantasy with long sleeves, and pearls down the seams."

Conclusion

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